British cave divers, Rick Stanton (centre), Chris Jewell, and chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council Peter Dennis speak to the media at a news conference at Heathrow Airport, having helped in the rescue of the 12 boys in Thailand, in London, Britain, on Friday. (Reuters photo)
LONDON: British divers involved in the “unprecedented” rescue of 12 schoolboys from a flooded cave in Thailand said on Friday they were not heroes, but were just happy their specialised skills could be of help.
All 12 of the boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach were brought to safety over the course of a three-day rescue organised by Thai Navy Seals and an international team of diving and caving experts, including 11 from Britain, that ended on Tuesday.
“Are we heroes? No,” said Rick Stanton, one of the two British divers who found the boys.
“We’re just using a very unique skill set, which we normally use for our own interest and sometimes we’re able to use that to give something back to the community,” Stanton, from Coventry, central England, told reporters at London Heathrow Airport.
The boys and their coach had gone into the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23, for a quick excursion after soccer practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
Mr Stanton and John Volanthen found the boys on July 2, squatting on a muddy mound in a flooded chamber four kilometres inside the complex, nine days after they went in.
“That was a massive, massive relief. Initially, we weren’t certain they were all alive and as they were coming down I was counting them until I got to 13,” said Mr Stanton.
“All we could think about was how we were going to get them out, so there was relief tempered with uncertainty,” he said.
“This is completely uncharted, unprecedented territory. nothing like this has been done before, so of course there were doubts, but I knew that we had a good team.”
The mission was “an order of difficulty much higher than anything that’s been accomplished anywhere around the world by any other cave diving team,” said Mr Stanton.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, had to dive for part of their journey out before they were put on plastic toboggan-like stretchers and carried, at times through steep, rocky tunnels, with ropes strung overhead.
“Diving conditions were extremely challenging,” said cave diver Chris Jewell.
“We are delighted with [the] successful outcome.”
Peter Dennis, chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, said the operation was “one of the most extraordinary cave rescues we have seen.”
He paid tribute to Petty Officer 1st Class Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy diver who died during the operation.
“We must remember the tragedy of Saman,” Mr Dennis said.
The team echoed the comments made by John Volanthen, the other British diver who found the boys and returned to England earlier.
Mr Volanthen told BBC he and other rescuers “are not heroes”.
Arriving at Heathrow Airport on Thursday, Mr Volanthen said it was a “relief” but played down his heroics.
Mr Volanthen, an IT consultant based in Bristol but who grew up in Brighton, was one of the first rescuers to discover the group huddled in the darkness of the Luang Nang Non Cave.
Arriving back in the UK, he said everybody had “pulled together” and was “very, very pleased it worked out quite so well”.
“We’re just very happy that the boys are out and safe,” he said.
“We were very relieved that they were all alive but I think at that point we realised the enormity of the situation and that’s perhaps why it took a while to get them all out.”
On social media, Mr Volanthen has been described as a “real hero” with many calling for him and Mr Stanton to be honoured.
But Mr Volanthen dismissed the idea, adding: “We are not heroes. What we do is very calculating, very calm. It’s quite the opposite.”
“We take it one step at a time and hopefully, as we’ve managed to in this case, we come up with the results.”
British cave divers, Rick Stanton, Chris Jewell, Connor Roe, Josh Bratchley, Jim Warny, Mike Clayton and Gary Mitchell, arrive at Heathrow Airport on Friday. (Reuters photo)